What is a Wolf Personality Like?

Lisa Matthews / Volunteer / Wolf Song of Alaska

Wolf Personalities by Monty Sloan

All wolves have individual personalities just like people do and no two are alike. Personalities develop through an individual's unique emotions and thoughts resulting in different behaviors and are influenced by both one's genetic make-up and the type of things one is exposed to in the living environment. Genetically, different personalities have evolved and persist because, given various environmental conditions, some traits are more advantageous than others at any given time - traits that could help ensure one's particular survival. We can make some generalities when it comes to describing the wolf personality just like one could do for the entire human species, such as imaginative, intelligent etc. After that, we must take into account the individual differences. Let's talk about both - the generalities and some documented individual personalities of the wolf.

In The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, by David Mech, it is written that the strongest impression wolves can make on an observer is how friendly they are. Adults are friendly toward each other and amiable towards pups. There is an innate good feeling happening between them. Research has shown us that it appears that this quality in the wolf's personality is related most directly to the animal's social nature. Indeed, probably the wolf's strongest personality trait is its capacity for making emotional attachments to other individuals. Such attachments must form quickly and firmly and they begin to develop when the wolves are just a few weeks old. The pups become distressed when away from familiar individuals and objects and are relieved when they are back near them. This ability to form emotional attachments to other individuals results in the formation of the pack, or family, as the unit of wolf society. When wolf pups are raised by human beings, this social tendency is especially noticeable. The animals usually become extremely attached to the humans and any dogs with which they have early or considerable contact.

A second characteristic of wolf personality might surprise many people who think of wolves as savage and vicious. The reality is that wolves have a basic aversion to fighting and will do much to avoid any aggressive encounters. It has been observed that a tame wolf had become frantically upset upon witnessing its first dog fight. As described in the same book noted above, the distressed wolf intervened and eventually broke up the fight by pulling the aggressor off by the tail. The wolf generally possesses a kind personality that in humans would be labeled "agreeable." A nonviolent nature usually would be very advantageous, considering that these animals spend most of their time in the company of other wolves. A pack would function very inefficiently if its members were constantly at each other's throats. Under certain circumstances, however, a wolf can be aggressive, such as when harassing prey, meeting strange wolves, and when protecting the den or pups from other predators. One would naturally deem these situation-specific aggressive behaviors as advantageous as well.

On a side note, it would be wrong to think that aggression is never present in the wolf or any species for that matter (including humans). It would also be wrong to think that gentleness is not present in the wolf or any other species. Life as we know it cannot exist without some aggression just as it could not without cooperation and gentleness (especially among social animals). A balance between aggressive behaviors and cooperation is always being sought with differing degrees of each depending on environmental circumstances which have over time been naturally selected to favor certain behavioral traits.

Most of us have heard by now that the wolf is an extremely intelligent species. Dr. Gordon C. Haber, a noted wolf biologist in Alaska's Denali National Park and Preserve, has said that if you imagine the most unusually intelligent, emotional, and sensitive dog you have ever knownŠ that that's how all wolves are - that extraordinariness is just commonplace among them. It is necessary for their survival.

Scientists in the social sciences understand that intelligence is a difficult thing to define and measure. When studying even human intelligence, there are all sorts of biases and difficulties making IQ results not an absolute description of one's intelligence. Nevertheless, we can say that wolves are very intelligent based on the overwhelming evidence that they have a good ability to remember, to associate events, and to learn. In northern Minnesota, where wolves were persecuted extensively by aerial hunters, they soon learned to avoid open areas whenever they heard an aircraft. Once the planes had disappeared the wolves would proceed to cross the open area.

Additionally, land hunters often claim that the wolf is such an intelligent animal that it makes hunting them a mighty challenge. We can see wolves' ability to adapt in the following example as well: In areas where there are both deer and moose the wolves show a preference to hunt deer (because they are smaller), however, on Isle Royale where the only large prey is moose, the wolves there have learned to kill these animals efficiently. Another example of wolf intelligence involves a tame wolf separated from its alpha human for three years. When they were reunited, the wolf was still was able to recognize the man. The few examples cited above demonstrate that the wolf shows a high degree of adaptability to varying conditions, is able to learn readily, and does retain learned information for a long time.

So what about individual wolf personalities? Indeed, individual wolves vary greatly, as those people who have reared them can attest. Once again, the common idea of the wolf being a ferocious creature is not what people who live closely to wolves for a long time see. What happens is that they are struck by their friendly nature and their varied and unique individual characters. Once more from David Mech's book noted above, we can find a documented account of the personalities of a variety of wolves held in captivity. The observer characterizes one male wolf as lordly, timid, and luxury-loving. Another wolf, a female, was described as being fearless, happy, playful, and inventive. Another female was described as a hearty, affectionate, not jealous, and of the undemanding sort. One male was seen as aggressive. Finally, the observer described another female as being sober, gentle, and withdrawn.

Others who have enjoyed the company of wolves have described some individuals as confident, tolerant, and generous natural leaders, as wild and playful, as supportive and full of affection, as strong but kind, patient, and dignified, as not confident, less tolerant or easy-going, as happy, resilient and stern, and as relaxed, kind, lovable and never harsh.

Now, hasn't your personality ever been stifled by the various roles we must play in our society, i.e., having to subordinate yourself to you boss when you'd rather tell him or her how to do things? Often described as the masks we humans must wear to operate within our cultures, wolves must don these superficial masks too! Wolves must role play within their packs befitting to one's particular status. They are acting. They could just as easily shift from being a dominant wolf to a subordinate wolf and vice versa as conditions change and show all the traits associated with those roles. Keep in mind that a wolf's real personality is often hidden under the character of his or her social position.

Intelligent, non-aggressive, and friendly with the ability to make strong emotional attachments are among those traits we can generalize about the magnificent wolf. Individual traits seem as varied and as similar to our own. It is of no wonder that so many people feel such an affinity and connection with this beautiful and complex animal.